One of the all time questions in sport is which generation is the best? The conclusion is almost always – it’s impossible to compare generations because of technology.
Granted, technology does have an affect, but it is becoming much less of an influence in the last 20 years as, even though it has obviously moved forward, the playability consequences are less. Take squash and tennis for example, there was a massive difference when they moved from wooden rackets to graphite rackets. It wasn’t just the power aspect that was greatly effected, but also the manoeverability of the racket, allowing greater racket head speed, leading to a bigger variety of shots as now the wrist could also come into play more to allow for more deception. Since we have had graphite rackets, the technology still moves on but the rackets are more or less the same. For example: Ramy Ashour’s Prince PowerRing isn’t really any different from ex No.1, Peter Nichol’s Prince PowerRing 15 years ago. 90’s World No.1, Jansher Kahn’s Head Pyramid Power 120 squash racket would still be considered a decent racket now. Tennis God, Roger Federer’s Wilson racket now is hardly different from legend Pete Sampras’ Wilson Pro Staff from 15 years ago.
This means there was a massive, instant improvement from the late 70’s generation to the late 80’s generation after the introduction of graphite rackets – so these two generations simply cannot be compared. I do feel though, that generations since then, since the use of graphite rackets can be compared.
This then means we can compare generations from the mid 1980’s onwards. Anyone would surely agree that the standard now is better than 20 years ago.
In squash – I definitely believe Ramy Ashour plays at a higher level than the greats Jansher and Jahangir Khan did in the 80’s and 90’s – so why is this if it’s not because of racket technology?
Football is an interesting sport to look at. Technology does not come into play as much. Johan Cryff perfected a move to dribble past defenders, know as the Cryff Turn. It was first seen in the 1974 World Cup and amazed everyone. Now the Cryff Turn is not exceptional, but incredibly normal, even easy, in fact it’s done so often commentators don’t even bother mentioning it. Ten years ago, Ronaldinho’s skills were outrageous, and now Lionel Messi (among many many others) can do them all and a massive range of new ones!
Sport moves forward. What was once the exception, becomes the norm to the next generation, and so on and so forth. Standards improve. So what is it? Sports Science?
Sport Science in training – This definitely has an impact. It provides new knowledge to train more cleverly, more specifically. This can isolate small areas of weakness and provide constant testing and monitoring to put back in to the feedback loop. It is also meant to help prevent injuries (which I’m not convinced it does but that’s a discussion for another time!) and help increase career length. Again though, science has been used in training for decades and still our current batch of athletes surpass previous generations with more or less the same information at hand.
I honestly believe sport will always move forward. As I said, what was once exceptional becomes normal years later. People see the levels achieved by one individual, copy it, reach it, then surpass it and by doing so, take the sport to the next level. This then means the truely exceptional ones are the first individuals who don’t just become the best, but dominate for a number of years by doing things never seen before, thus taking the sport to the next level. People have to find ways to catch them up if they wish to compete and don’t want to settle for second best. This raises the level of the sport, generation after generation.
Truely exceptional people who took squash to the next level in recent times are Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, Amr Shabana (who not only raised the level but changed the way squash was played), Ramy Ashour, and definitely Sarah Fitzgerald and then Nicol David in the women’s game. All these phenomenal athletes not only caught up their predecessors but surpassed them. Currently, Mohamed El Shorbagy’s uncanny ability to raise his level for the major events (like Nick Matthew did so well) could possibly be the next one to surpass the highest level of Ramy, time will tell!
Obviously tennis has had exceptional athletes in the forms of Bjorn Borg, then Pete Sampras, who was then surpassed by the legendary Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
One exception that people would argue improvement has to stop some time are Running Events. There must be a physical limit to how fast a human can run a certain distance. For example, the 100m cannot be run in 4 seconds!
I disagree that running improvement has to stop, I would just say the improvements must become smaller and smaller. The 100m is measured in the tiniest of split seconds, and the slightest improvement can be measured, but still improvement will always be possible nontheless. History shows us that records are always broken! Athletes I personally love, who not only break the World Record, but then go on to break their own World Records again and again, are Usain Bolt and Haile Gebrselassie. Both incredible runners who conquer, surpass and continue to dominate and drive themselves to new heights. Haile’s marathon records are phenomenal and his domination over a decade simply ridiculous, but even his records have now been broken as the natural progression continues. One day Usain Bolt’s records will too be broken giving rise to a new generation achieving 100m times that right now we would struggle to comprehend.
So, will sport ever stop moving forward? No! Standards will always improve. Humans will always find a way to make the once exceptional become normality…